Sam Eastman reports about a summer trip to the remote Cirque of the Unclimbables in the Northwest Territories to attempt Great Canadian Knife 5.13. They were forced to leave early after an unexpected snow storm.
On Aug. 4, Ben Homer, my dad Matt Zaleski and I left Finlayson Lake in the Yukon Territory. We then met a helicopter pilot in the North West Territories to bump us into the base camp for Mount Proboscis. Probosicis is the much bigger and steeper neighbour of the Lotus Flower Tower.
Most people walk to to the Lotus base camp from the float plane drop off at Glacier Lake. Proboscis sits above the Lotus Flower Tower, in a sheltered valley. From the information we could gather, the last party into the Proboscis base camp was there nine years ago. It took Layton Kor, Royal Robbins, and Jim McCarthy 15 days to walk into the valley below Proboscis. Being somewhat softer and more time restricted due to work commitments, we decided to spend literally all our money on a helicopter flight. Thanks to the John Lauchlan Award for helping us with funding.
It was quite difficult to explain to the helicopter pilot that we didn’t want to go shoot goats from his chopper like his typical clients, we wanted to be dropped off under a mountain he had never heard off. After a short flight we found Todd Skinner’s base camp. How can you tell it was Todd’s? There were bolts on every boulder for tarps and hanging food.
When we first arrived, we had about five days of snow and rain, with one night of around 10cm of snow that actually stuck around. This set the tone of the trip. We had originally set out to try and free the Spanish route from 1995. The issue was the Spanish route requires several rope lengths of lower slabs that are constantly bombed by rocks as quite a substantial freeze thaw cycle would happen each day. Another issue, the Spanish Route looked similar in difficulty to the Dawn Wall with 2,000 feet of climbing with not a single ledge, and unrealistic for us. All of the other crack lines had been climbed by Barry, Scott Cosgrove, Mason Earle, Robbins/Kor, Wharton/Copp and a few others. It was a gnarly stadium.
Skinner, Paul Piana and Galen Rowell’s Great Canadian Knife route had never seen a second ascent and looked wild. The Spanish brothers (Iker and Eneko Pou) tried to repeat it but got shut down, seemingly by the weather. It made it a bit more of an appealing prospect. The Knife sticks 30-40 feet out from the wall and ran the entire height of the wall. Because you are so far from the rest of the wall on the Knife, ww were able to climb with minimal amounts of falling ice and rock hitting us. Every night the top of the wall would freeze up, and then the rest of the next day it would all fall off. So, the Knife seemed like the best option for self preservation.
When Skinner and Piana sent, they spent two nights on the wall and gave it a grave of VI 5.13b. That was certainly a bit intimidating. Plus, it’s stacked at 5.13a, 5.12b/d, (different topos give different grades), 5.12d, 5.13b and 5.12b. I ended up breaking a hold on the first 5.13 pitch and now it’s probably the crux. In most climbing publications, it’s reported that the Knife is a giant sport route. In actuality it’s a bit of a run-out horror show, to give Skinner and Piana the credit they deserve.
I counted approximately 10 bolts on the 60-metre crux pitch. It seems they didn’t have enough bolts and would just drill holes for skyhooks to aid the wall and then place the occasional piece of fixed pro. Anyway, Ben and I climbed all the crux pitches, while my dad hiked most days on his own. Then we cleaned the cruxes up and got them totally dialed. Our plan was to rest up and fire the first 15 pitches to the top of the Knife feature that had a huge ledge at the top. We planned to camp there, do the extra six to 10 rope-lengths to the summit and figure out the descent ridge. You can’t rap the route after pitch 11.
The night after we had everything established to make our final push, the weather dropped to -5 at 2,000m (our basecamp) and it snowed about two feet. We gave it an attempt in the storm, but it was spin-drifting on us while we tried to rock climb. Both Ben and I got hit with falling snow and rock. Facing such hazards and the large amount of wet, new snow we pulled the gear we had on the crux pitches and sat in the tent to wait out the storm.
Unfortunately the forecasts we were getting indicated that there was no clearing trend coming within the next five days. As we were running out of time in our three weeks allotted in the area we made the decision to abandon our attempt. We had used the brief weather windows we had to free-climb the lower route, but we didn’t get the weather we needed to attempt to take the climb to the top. Eventually, having made the decision to abandon our effort, we took the opportunity when the helicopter pilot had a morning to fly and we left.
The trip was a learning experience for us. We learned how to equip a longer trip like this, a lot about logistics and transport in the mountains, and about the strategies needed to take on such a difficult climb in the wilds. We would have liked to have made an attempt on the entire line, but a summer of turbulent weather slowed us down.
We would like to thank the John Lauchlan Award for helping us find the trip. We thought attempting the iconic Great Canadian Knife would be a fitting tribute to the memory of John Lauchlan. In the end we return with a new appreciation of the difficulties of such a climb, and of the greater than expected costs of accessing such remote mountains.
Read the story of the first ascent of the Great Canadian Knife in the American Alpine Journal here.
Sout Ridge IV 5.7 A2
Piton Karmik VI 5.10b A3
The Great Canadian Knife VI 5.13b
Yukon Tears VI, 5.12c
The Grendel VI, 5.10, A4
At Dawn We Ride VI, 5.12cR
SE Face (Original Route) VI 5.9+ A3
Women at Work VI, 5.12R
Via Costa Brava VI 5.12R
Crazy Horse VI, 5.11a A4
NE Face V 5.9 A2